Keep talking

In May 1998, a fire broke out at a Brooklyn high school. According to The New York Times, a welder misdirected his torch and caused a closetful of fluorescent tubes to ignite. Smoke filled the building and briefly trapped 150 students and teachers. Eventually, they escaped unharmed.

That the accident happened at all was bad enough. That the mishap put the lives of so many people at risk was much worse. As the Times reported, this was the direct result of failed communication between the school's administration, the construction authority directing the work, and the contractor.

The contracting firm was at fault-the welder was not certified, and the contracting firm he worked for had violated the fire code by not posting anyone at the scene who was trained in spotting and responding to fires.

But also to blame were the officials who should have made sure that the contractor knew when potentially hazardous work could be scheduled safely. A committee investigating the incident found that no one had informed the contractor that after-school classes and activities often kept the building occupied past the close of the school day.

Fortunately, school-construction accidents that carry the threat of physical harm are extremely rare. But many other lesser calamities can afflict school-construction projects-scheduling noisy work at inappropriate times, failing to keep the surrounding community apprised about how construction will affect them, failing to communicate clearly with parents, faculty and students about the work and how long it will take.

Preventing all such problems-major and minor-is the business of contractors and school administrators alike, and effective communication is the key to avoiding them.

There are a number of ideas that administrators might consider to reduce the risk of school construction calamities. One general principle threads through this list: keep talking. To make sure your construction project goes as smoothly as possible, do not miss any opportunity for communication.

Create a construction committee Among non-life-threatening calamities, perhaps the worst is building a facility that does not meet the needs it was meant to address-unfortunately a common occurrence in public education. For administrators, there is only one sure way of guarding against disappointment at "turnover" time: insist that you be included in the planning, design and construction process. Take the lead in putting together a construction committee that will share information at regular, scheduled intervals. This should start at the beginning of the design process and continue until the project is delivered.

A construction committee should include representatives from the school administration, from the project architect's office, and from the construction-management or general contracting firm handling the job. For a public-school project, the committee also should include a representative from the local school board or, depending on how your municipal school-construction system works, from the governmental construction agency overseeing the work. The construction-committee approach also works for private schools, though the committee would in that case include a representative from the board of directors, probably the chair of the building committee.

Contractors need to keep administrators closely abreast of progress, but it is important to remember that communication is a two-way street. Administrators and school staff can impart a great deal of helpful information to the construction team, such as letting the contractor know the ins and outs of a school's schedule. In another example, if the mechanical systems in a building addition will be tied into those of the existing structure, facilities staff may be better acquainted than anyone else-designers included-with the actual condition of that equipment and any problems that might make such tie-ins difficult.

Spread the word The construction committee is not a secret society that meets behind closed doors and keeps its decisions hush-hush. Just the opposite: one of its chief roles is to keep the entire school community informed and to make sure that everyone-students, faculty, staff, parents, neighbors-is prepared for the construction. People are frightened of construction when they do not understand what is going on. They are often scared of procedures they perceive as hazardous. They quickly grow tired of the noise and inconvenience and get angry when they are kept in the dark about what is happening or how long the inconvenience is going to last.

You can calm people's fears and anger by disseminating clear, full information at regular intervals. There are many ways to prepare the community for construction and keep people informed:

-If the school has a "career day" program, invite the construction manager, general contractor and members of the construction trades to participate-either on a classroom-by-classroom basis or as a schoolwide assembly. Have them talk with students about their jobs and give simple demonstrations of construction techniques. Not only will students learn firsthand about what is happening at their school, but they also will share the information with their parents.

-Before construction begins, arrange for the faculty and staff to walk through similar construction projects at various stages of completion. Once construction has begun, have several such walkthroughs of the new facility itself at various milestones in the process. The process will not seem quite so lengthy if faculty and staff actually get to see progress.

-Publish a regular construction update newsletter distributed to parents and the entire community. The newsletter might include facts and figures (i.e. just how many bricks have been laid so far); interviews with construction workers, designers or others involved in the project; and a schedule of upcoming events in the construction process.

Keep it upbeat-but make sure it is accurate. If the construction is occurring at a middle or high school, encourage English and journalism classes to help. Have the construction firm provide some key photographs of the construction. One caution: If you do decide to publish a newsletter, make sure you follow through. Do not publish just a single issue and then abandon the project. That may make it seem as if something has gone wrong even if everything is on track.

-Even if you are not publishing a newsletter, find ways to let students, teachers, staff, parents and neighbors know what is happening, and prepare them well in advance for the next stage of construction. Post notices, make frequent announcements, or have someone from the construction committee appear regularly at local board meetings.

Getting acquainted There's nothing worse than having a problem occur and not knowing whom to call. It is essential to clearly lay out the channels of communication before a project begins. This means that administrators should get to know all of the key construction personnel who will be working at their school.

To fend off problems, and to make sure that any problem that does occur is corrected immediately, administrators should work with construction managers or general contractors to establish a partnering relationship among all construction participants. The ground rules should be inplace from the beginning of a project-do not wait until after construction has begun. One of the best ways for school officials and contractors and subcontractors to get acquainted is to hold an offsite, pre-construction meeting. Hire an outside facilitator-someone highly experienced in helping people form partnering relationships-to guide you.

Safety first As The New York Times story demonstrates, safety should be everyone's business. Trading blame after a calamity happens is a poor substitute for preventing an accident. Here are some very practical measures that school officials can take to reduce safety risks:

-Make sure that simple, visible signs are posted throughout a school facility or campus work site. The signage should direct people away from potentially hazardous areas and clearly mark alternative routes.

-Augment signs with "traffic cops." Especially during heavy traffic-the beginning and end of the school day, passing times between periods-place security guards (or "deputized" faculty or staff) in lobbies and other heavily traveled areas to direct people and answer questions.

-Coordinate changes in traffic patterns with the beginning of the school year or with holidays and vacation periods (just after Thanksgiving, Christmas and spring breaks). It is easier to get people to follow new routines when they have had a break from their old routines.

-Finally, you should insist that all construction personnel be given photo-ID badges (with workers' names and the companies they work for legibly displayed). They should wear them whenever they are on the property. With concerns for school safety at an all-time high, monitoring access to your building or campus this way is important.

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